various artists,
The Sounds of the Western Sahara: Mauritania
(ARC, 2004)

This CD is a compilation of vintage recordings, which Indian ethno-musicologist Deben Bhattacharya (1921-2001) made during a 1978 visit to Mauritania. Plans to document more of this northwestern African country's music were thwarted by a military coup later in that year, ousting the government at whose invitation Bhattacharya had been admitted to the country.

The music on this album reflects the cultural diversity of this region. Earliest human settlement dates back more than 7,000 years, when this part of Africa was still fertile -- but with time it was claimed by the desert. Over the centuries the originally black people inhabiting the area were confronted with Berber invasions (the offspring of European Vandals who moved across the Mediterranean during late antiquity) and conquering Arabs, who brought Islam with them. This ethnic melting pot gave birth to the so-called Moorish culture, which in its heyday covered most parts of northern Africa and Spain.

Throughout the centuries the Moors controlled the trade routes that connected what are now Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia with sub-Saharan Africa. The specific musical samples included on this CD belong to the legacy of the tribes inhabiting the border region between Mauritania and Western Sahara -- formerly known as Spanish Sahara. When Spain withdrew from this area in 1975, both Mauritania and Morocco made claims to it. Since then Western Sahara has been plagued by a vicious civil war between the independence movement Polisario and Morocco, resulting in the displacement of many West Saharans, who for the last 30 years have been living in often squalid conditions in refugee camps in Algeria and Mauritania.

Bhattacharya has selected both instrumental and vocal performances. The songs on this CD are rendered in the Hasaniya dialect of Arabic, the vernacular spoken by the tribes inhabiting this corner of the Sahara desert. But the compositions are mostly based on patterns derived from classical Arabic poetry. I was privileged to visit some the camps on the Algerian side of the border in 1989 and had opportunity to witness a number of musical performances very similar to the ones on this album. It is important that musicologists like Bhattacharya try to salvage the heritage of marginal societies under threat, like those of the West-Saharans.

by Carool Kersten
24 September 2005

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